March 1, 2024

Is it possible to learn a language at any age? It’s never too late to master a new language

by Mateusz Wiącek

I first started learning a foreign language when I was 15 years old. In post-communist Poland, not much was known about how to learn a foreign language in an effective way. No one knew if languages could be learned at any age. Only textbooks and possibly CDs with recordings were available. There was no Internet. I was a very ambitious and hard-working child; I studied regularly and it was a lot of fun. As a result, when I turned 16 and went to visit my family in Austria, I could communicate in German without any problems. 

I wanted to infect my mother with my passion for languages. I always asked why she would not learn German so that it would be easier for her to travel as well. She told me that she couldn’t learn the language because of her age, that in a way, it was too late to learn. Somehow I found this hard to believe. I already knew intuitively that foreign languages can be learned at any age.

Knowing one language was definitely not enough for me. I also wanted to learn about how language learning itself works. This was one of the reasons I chose to study linguistics. There I learned about the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH). According to this, learning English or any other foreign language becomes very difficult after the age of about 12. It seemed rather strange to me – after all, I myself had learned German without any problems when I was 15.

During my life I have learned five foreign languages. I mastered each of them after the aforementioned “critical period.” When I was 35, I traveled to Novi Sad, Serbia, to attend my first polyglot conference. There I met many people, speaking several foreign languages, who told me stories about how they had learned a new language in their 40s, 50s and beyond. 

The conclusion then came to me all by itself. The answer to the question “Can you learn English or any other language at any age?” is: definitely yes! So another question needs to be asked: “How do you learn a foreign language at any age, whether during your teenage years, after 40, or already retired?” The second question is, “Are children really better at learning languages?”

Check out the answers in this article.

Language acquisition hypothesis

Before I discuss more broadly the issue of age and whether learning languages from scratch is possible for the elderly, I must mention Stephen Krashen. He is an American linguist, psycholinguist and educator. His work mainly focuses on issues related to language acquisition and language learning. He is known for several theories that have influenced the field of language teaching. We will mention them in this article, but the most important is the “language acquisition” hypothesis.

Acquiring vs learning the language

Stephen Krashen distinguishes two main ways of gaining a language: acquisition and learning.

To put it in the easiest way, according to Krashen’s theory, language acquisition is a subconscious process that occurs automatically. During this process, we are not aware that we are learning a language, but new knowledge is accumulated in our mind subconsciously. Acquisition is, so to speak, instinctive; language can be “felt” without knowing the rules. In a way, it can be compared to breathing or balance. 

Unlike assimilation, learning a language is a conscious process. As part of this process, we focus on learning vocabulary and grammar, correcting mistakes, spelling rules and punctuation. Knowledge gained in this way is stored in our mind consciously. Unfortunately, the disadvantage is that we may start to analyze the learning process instead of simply immersing ourselves in it, which makes us see less results.

Krashen argues that acquisition is more important for achieving fluency in a foreign language. Mastery of a language here means the ability to communicate freely. Consciously learning a language is only a step towards linguistic fluency – we learn words and grammatical rules only to use them in real situations, but only experiencing the language and understanding it leads to fluency and true acquisition. Read more about Krashen’s hypotheses in our other articles.

Let’s take a look at how learning and language acquisition relate to how adults and children deal with a new language.

How do children learn foreign languages?

Children acquire language based on instincts, just like excellent musicians or chess masters – they process information faster and more intuitively.

Why is this so?

When children learn their first language, their brains and speech apparatus are still undergoing intensive development. They simply work differently! This makes children “absorb” language like a sponge. They can memorize huge numbers of words and sentences without knowing what they mean or how to use them.

Children do not have a fully developed declarative memory, so their information immediately goes into procedural memory (which you can read about in the article: “What are the types of memory and how can you use them?”). Consequently, children do not intentionally try to memorize the language they hear. They don’t analyze – they simply experience it. In other words, children do not use their declarative memory (conscious, analyzing the material and facts they acquire) – simply because it has not yet developed. Most adults analyze everything, judging themselves and consciously putting effort into understanding. This is why adults have so many difficulties. 

In terms of pronunciation, children have it easier because their speech muscles (such as the tongue and lips) are developing to be able to pronounce the sounds of the world around them in the kind of language they hear every day. As a result, their muscles are tuned to be able to pronounce specific sounds. Adults learning a new language will never be able to pronounce as well as children. Humans learn sounds very early, often even before they are born, hearing their mother’s voice, for example. At around 6–8 months, the ability to recognize new language sounds is not longer as good.

The language that children learn is integrated into areas of the brain responsible for sensorimotor abilities such as seeing, hearing and touching. This means that accessing language will be faster, and speaking it will require much less effort (as little as moving your hands, for example). This is why it feels so natural to speak in our first language. Rarely, and only with a lot of effort, are adults able to learn a language so that communicating in it feels so intuitive. In the case of grammar, those who learned it intuitively as children will always move more freely through it. They will feel it more than understand it.

What is more, children learn all the time – 24 hours a day. Their whole life is about interacting with the environment and trying to communicate. Adults, on the other hand, can allocate a limited amount of time to language learning because they usually have many other responsibilities. One-hour English lessons are no substitute for being able to learn virtually non-stop.

Note, however, that children are not magicians – they don’t have a magic formula that makes their education faster. They, too, need a lot of time to master a language. Think about children’s language learning from a slightly different perspective. To master a language, children need about five years to start speaking it fluently. Even then, however, their vocabulary is quite limited and they can’t speak on many topics. They do speak, but they don’t really have anything specific to say. Only at the beginning of high school can they engage in conversation on a meaningful topic. 

Adults can learn a language in a more effective way, have a richer vocabulary and not only speak a language, but also have something to say in it.

So where does the belief that a language cannot be learned from a certain age come from?

Sensitive phase (or critical period) – truth or myth?

At the beginning I mentioned the critical period, which I learned about in college. The sensitive phase does indeed exist, but it does not apply only to languages, and not even only to the world of people.

Here are some examples that explain the critical period.

  1. Kittens, for example, have a sensitive period for light exposure and visual development. In an experiment by D. H. Hubel and T. N. Wiesel, kittens were blindfolded, which led to a reduction in visual skills. These were irreversible changes that led to lifelong disability.
  2. If birds have no contact with other birds, we can see the same developmental problems. For example, if a young bird does not have a role model to imitate singing, or cannot do so, its singing will never develop, or will develop in a flawed way. 
  3. Musicians with perfect pitch have little time to develop this skill. Absolute hearing develops only until the age of five. In such musicians one notices differences between the connections between the two hemispheres of the brain – they have a different thickness of the corpus callosum. 
  4. Victor of Aveyron is a boy who was raised by wolves (yes, it’s a true story). He was found by humans when he was nine years old. However, attempts to socialize him failed. Moreover, the boy never learned human language. 
  5. Another sad story concerns Genie Wiley. The girl suffered tremendous abuse from her father for most of her childhood – he chained her to a toilet and kept her locked in a room with no contact with the outside world. The girl was forbidden to speak. When she was found, it was discovered that she could learn new words. Although her vocabulary developed quite quickly, she had great difficulty putting words together and did not seem to understand grammar.

Although many neuroscientists suggest that most of us are too old to master language at the level of our native tongue, Yellen Bialystok’s research is worth mentioning here. According to the researcher, such an assumption is somewhat exaggerated. While there is indeed a slight decrease in language skills with age, it does not have a significant impact on the ability to master a foreign language fluently. 

Is it possible to learn a foreign language as an adult, then?

Jan Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach

Can you learn a language at any age?

It is clear from the previous chapter that there are some aspects of language that adults will never learn as well as children do. Mainly, however, these are pronunciation and grammatical intuition. This does not mean, however, that for people over a certain age it is impossible to learn a language at all. 

Let’s be clear and dispel two myths.

First myth: Children learn languages better than adults

Indeed, in some aspects they are better, but not in all. Remember that many skills develop and are most useful later in life. In this regard, it is worth listening to Helen Abadzi, a Greek psychologist who spent almost 30 years working as a specialist for the education of seniors. Her lecture “Efficient language learning for all” is a treasure trove of knowledge on language learning for adults. 

Learning a language as an adult has several advantages. Here are some of them:

  1. You have already learned one language (i.e., your mother tongue), so you are aware of the existence of many different languages and have the ability to translate from one language to another.
  2. You understand how the world works and have access to more detailed knowledge about it. As a result, you are able to talk about a wide variety of topics and see similarities and differences in what you learn. Adults have a wealth of life experience and knowledge, which can make it easier for them to understand the cultural context of the target language and to acquire vocabulary from different fields.
  3. You are more aware of the very act of learning a language. You are able to analyze language structure, understand grammatical rules and actively work to improve your skills.
  4. You have a specific motivation to learn a language, for example, for professional reasons, travel, or personal interests. This motivation can affect the intensity and effectiveness of the learning process.
  5. You are aware that you are learning, and you can do so in a methodical way, allowing you to choose the learning methodology that is best for you (of course, this is an advantage only if the methodology you use is actually effective). What’s more, you have the ability to plan and organize the learning process yourself, so you can make it as optimal as possible. For example, you can choose to use effective repetition methods, such as Spaced Repetition.

To improve your language learning at Taalhammer, we even created our proprietary Spaced Repetition. It is the foundation of effective language learning, and with it you can remember up to 95% of the information you learn, even as an adult.

Second myth: It is impossible to learn a language at a fluent level as an adult

Although the critical period does indeed exist, it only applies to certain skills, such as perfect pronunciation of all the sounds of a language. It does not, however, apply to the ability to communicate in a language.

A language can be learned to a fluent degree at any age. This has been proven in myself and is proven again and again by polyglots such as Tim Keeley and Alexander Argüelles, who, despite not being the youngest age, learn a new language every now and then. Tim even wrote a book about it titled A life in 30 languages.

Remember that just learning a language is also a skill you can learn. Many learners make basic mistakes that slow down and sometimes prevent progress. For example, they avoid conversation, hoping that one day they will just start speaking. Polyglots are not magicians; the truth is quite different and less charming: they just know how to learn. Be sure to read our article to learn how polyglots learn languages.

The main difference between adults and children is that adults learn the language and acquire it less. And this is related to the aforementioned declarative memory, which is highly developed in adults. They are very conscious of the act of learning itself, so they cannot learn without knowing that they are learning, as children do.

Activation of the declarative memory system can suppress activation of the non-declarative memory system. This means that a deliberate attempt to learn specific information can interfere with the unconscious learning of probabilities, patterns, intuition and other experience-based understanding.

Factors that can negatively affect language learning at an older age

Contrary to the beliefs of many people, there is no such thing as a talent for languages. Sure, some people may have a slightly faster memory, or you may be more shy, and this in turn affects learning, but talent as such does not exist. 

There are, however, two interesting factors that can negatively affect learning a foreign language.


According to Krashen, whom I mentioned earlier, acquisition is the process that initiates the production of language, especially spoken language, and is responsible for our fluency in language. On the other hand, language acquired through learning acts as a “monitor” or “editor.”

In practice, this means that in a real conversation, when we want to say a sentence in a foreign language, the form of that sentence comes from our subconscious acquisition process. However, just before we utter the sentence, we use the “monitor” to quickly check and possibly correct errors, according to the linguistic rules we know. 

Adults, when they want to say something in a foreign language, bring the sentence to consciousness and instead of pronouncing it right away, they stop and try to analyze and correct it. And boom! As a result, they often give up and say nothing. Or they stutter in pursuit of perfection. 

Children don’t have such a monitor in them, and they simply say whatever their mouths bring, just to convey what they have to say. And that, I think, is where the child’s genius lies. Because in learning a language, it’s more important to be able to express yourself and communicate, not for the sentences to be perfect.

Affective Filter

Krashen also introduced the concept of the so-called “affective filter.” He assumes that there are, so to speak, internal factors that can affect learning a foreign language. These include, for example, certain personality traits, lack of self-confidence, anxiety levels and so on. These can become an obstacle to communicating with others, as well as to acquiring the language. 

Thus, people who achieve good results in language learning do not have any additional abilities. According to Krashen, it is the people who don’t succeed who produce a mechanism in themselves that prevents them from speaking freely. For example, people who are embarrassed or afraid of being laughed at will avoid speaking, and this will make learning ineffective. Our own ego prevents us from learning! Often this is due to how formal education works, where students are constantly graded – the fear of being judged or given a bad grade, as well as criticism, blocks our approach to learning.

If you want to hear more about Krashen, I invite you to the following video:

Learn a language at any age with Taalhammer

Learning a language is our life. We have polyglots on our team who have already learned languages after the famous critical period. So we know from experience how to learn to get the best results. Of course, in addition to our experience, we have years of research and testing behind us, which has allowed us to patent applications that are optimal for learning at any age. 

Using the method of learning in complete sentences, the interval repetition algorithm and many other proven techniques, we have created an app that will help you learn effectively!

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